The Virtue of a Heartfelt Apology


The Virtue of a Heartfelt Apology

Apologize? Never! Apologize? It’s not my fault!

At VIM Executive Coaching, we must admit to hearing more than a few executive leaders who had an absolute disdain for making any kind of “admission” that they may have been wrong on an issue. Or any issue for that matter. They close down at any suggestion that they may have been wrong about something, especially if the person bringing it to their attention in someone below them on the organizational chart. Instead, they will often go on the offensive, blaming faulty information, a weak report, the inability to see the “big picture” or the entire plan. In the worst-case scenarios, we have witnessed bias against those who had the temerity to correct, to suggest or to recommend an adjustment to the project, goal or numbers.

A Lack of Introspection

The executive leader who will never admit blame is usually the executive leader who will never apologize.

We must recall a memory at this point of seeing the CEO of a major Japanese conglomerate stand in front of his employees and stockholders and make an apology. He deeply bowed at the waist, and wearing white gloves and a dark business suit, admitted his failures in judgment and shortcomings.

It is not that CEO’s of North American companies are incapable of making apologies, it is that we rarely expect them to do it unless a law suit or prison sentence is looming. The pattern often filters down to other “C-level” executives and below, as though the act of requesting forgiveness is somehow antithetical to everything in which they believe.

We are often told that making an apology is viewed as an act of weakness. We are “raised” in our corporate cultures to take no prisoners, to be ruthless, and to never look back. It is fine (only to a degree, in the military), but in the modern corporate climate where teams form and disband and workers are often working remote or on a virtual platform, a lack of interpersonal skills and introspection lead to work team failures.

A lack of introspection and the sheer inability to admit wrong-doing, mistakes or even failure, doesn’t just come from hard-headedness or stubbornness, but a lack of authenticity.

Be Authentic to be Introspective

The stubborn approach, the inability to admit someone on the work team is right, and they are wrong, will eventually result in isolation, termination – or perhaps worse, a failure of the organization.

While no one expects the executive leader to be overly profuse or insincere in making an apology (in fact, it makes everything worse), a simple acknowledgment that they may have been wrong does go a long way. Generally speaking, the “digging in of heels” or the refusal to apologize for a blunder generally comes out of a reaction rather than a response.

The reaction of, “I refuse to apologize for an error because I wasn’t given enough information,” might be more tempered with a response of, “In the future we will need a lot more study or research or trials, etc. before going forward.” It accomplishes the same thing but draws a much more authentic conclusion.

There is a virtue in making amends for a mistake. It shows, after all, the authenticity of an executive leader who understands their limitations.

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Bruce Wolk